1. birgerjohansson says

    It looks almost like the humor from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
    Or maybe XKCD.

  2. Dunc says

    DIdn’t Alan Moore already write this, only to find that a lot of people didn’t get the joke?

  3. Alan G. Humphrey says

    That is Justice in the US of A. For every $100,000 of blue-collar crime prosecuted a $1,000,000 white-collar crime is saved from prosecution. Similarly, a Black person killed by cops leads to murders by white people being unsolved. White Supremacy, the superest of superpowers.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Both logical and slightly fun: Data scientist suggests many Bigfoot sightings are bear sightings.

  5. weylguy says

    I suspect most people will not comprehend the “trolley” reference. Meanwhile, I wonder why superheroes are always so noble and just, while the billions devouring the movies are so inhuman.

  6. says

    No superpowers required here!
    Just take the fattest person in the vicinity and use them as an unwilling float to bring the people ashore. The needs of the many…

  7. robro says

    weyley @ #8 — I confess I don’t get the “trolley” reference, but I do get that people look up to their noble and just superheroes but have no interest in emulating them. Just look at the behavior of most Christians versus their idealization of Jesus, perhaps the original superhero.

  8. eliza422 says

    I was just watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix, the one with various paranormal etc. sitings on the Navajo nation, and my very first thought when watching was “It’s a bear!” Not sure how common bears are in that area, but it would be an interesting story.
    They also have reports of skinwalkers, aliens – and say that that the Navajo creation story implies they came from another dimension through some portal. Make of that what you will.

  9. Dunc says

    Jesus, perhaps the original superhero

    You need to read more mythology. Gilgamesh? Heracles? Cú Chulainn?

  10. robro says

    Dunc @ #12 — I have read those myths, but I forgot them because we don’t have followers of Gilgamesh et al running around killing people these days. Perhaps I should have said “the original superhero with lots of followers doing exactly the opposite of their ideal.”

  11. woozy says

    I confess I don’t get the “trolley” reference

    It’s the “<a href=”

    Trolley Problem”. The joke being is it moral for him to rescue the people when it requires he kill one person to activate the powers to save many.

    Although a valid philosophical discussion point, it has been over-used and misapplied by many assholes in the last decade or so. But this one actually puts it in in good perspective.

    And I confess I laughed outloud at it.

    If Alan Moore did it (in Top-10?????) it went completely over my head. It’d have been pretty funny.

  12. raven says

    I confess I don’t get the “trolley” reference, …

    It refers to the unrealistic nature of many philosophical thought problems.
    Which makes them useless.

    Sam Harris is famous for coming up with scenarios like this.

    You have a gun in your hand pointed at a kitten.
    If you don’t kill the kitten in 5 minutes, a nuclear bomb will go off and destroy New York City.
    The choice is clear here, kill the kitten or a million people will die.

    What do you do?

    You pet the kitten and give it some food.
    There is no gun and there is no nuclear bomb.
    You also realize that Sam Harris is an evil idiot.

  13. raven says

    The effective altruists/long termers do the same thing.

    If you eat lunch and go shopping today, a billion people in the far future won’t exist.
    (Those people are Digital People living in a computronium cloud around a star in the Andromeda galaxy 10 million years from now. Names provided on request.)

    You could have spent that time and money making sure our first Star Ship leaves the solar system a thousand years from now by donating that money to a couple of dubious pretenders at Oxford running the Future of Humanity institute.

    As an added incentive, Roko’s Basilisk is going to show up tomorrow from a billion years in the future and kill you for not donating your lunch and shopping money.

  14. drsteve says

    It just occured to me that, although I grew up with and remain quite positive about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood overall, it was a bit of a missed opportunity if he never presented a practical illustration of the trolley problem, preferably combining it with a lesson on the most useful ways for commoners to interact with the monarchy.

  15. StevoR says

    For those who don’t know about the scenario / story John Morales is referring to in # 18 :

    Everything about Omelas is so abundantly pleasing that the narrator decides the reader is not yet truly convinced of its existence and so elaborates upon the final element of the city: its one atrocity. The city’s constant state of serenity and splendor requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery.

    Once citizens are old enough to know the truth, most, though initially shocked and disgusted, ultimately acquiesce to this one injustice that secures the happiness of the rest of the city. However, some citizens, young and old, walk away from the city after seeing the child.

    Source :

    by Ursula K. Le Guin.

  16. JimB says

    eliza422 @11
    I grew up next to Navajo country. Black bears are common. The first Smokey the Bear was saved in a forest fire in New Mexico…

    And there were a lot of “ghost” stories told around campfires about skinwalkers. It was the boogey man of choice growing up there.

  17. says

    StevoR @20: My first question in that scenario would be: What, EXACTLY, is the cause-to-effect relationship between that one child suffering so and the city’s high standard of living? By what specific mechanism does that one child’s endless suffering guarantee everyone else’s prosperity and happiness?

  18. John Morales says

    Raging Bee, it’s an allegory.

    (Might as well ask by what specific mechanism does Trolley Man get his powers from killing)

  19. woozy says

    Star Trek did a take on Omelas. It, being Star Trek after all, didn’t really make sense but there was networked computer/machine/terraformer (or maybe it was a wizard with a nuke) that could allow an idealized environment community while run but would result in global natural disaster if not run and it required a neural connection with a brain still in plasticity so a child is randomly selected, lauded and celebrated, and then hooked to the machine which essentially burnt the child out.

    LeGuin’s allegory, I think (confession, I have not read it), was a discussion about being told you live in a perfect society and then we slowly learn of its fetid underbelly, how we “ultimately acquiesce” to it. Or maybe it was something more subtle, being LeGuin after all. But was very clear it was simply an allegory.

    (and I don’t think it was meant to be a trolley problem, which I think needs to be plausible to be relevant [and Sam Harris is an asshole, who misses the point and abuses the story, which I don’t think is about “what’s the right answer?/ha, you don’t know! Checkmate, liberals!” but a discourse on how distance/direct involvement affects our sense of morality]).

  20. StevoR says

    @ ^ woozy : Do you happen to recall the title of that episode or at least which franchise of Trek that was from by any chance? I don’t remember that one at least not off the top of my head now.

    @22. Raging Bee : I don’t know if Ursula LeGuin gives an answer. I can’t recall reading the story myself but call it magic. Asking for the mechanism here is missing the point in my view.

  21. Dunc says


    If Alan Moore did it (in Top-10?????) it went completely over my head. It’d have been pretty funny.

    Well, not absolutely exactly this, but a major theme in a lot of his work is how the whole idea of superheroes is morally problematic at best, and as John Morales has already pointed out, this sort of ends-justify-the-means logic is tackled head-on in Watchmen. The point I was making (admittedly somewhat obliquely) is the one of the things we’ve learned from Moore’s work (not just in Watchmen, but it’s a particularly good example) is that whenever you try to use satire of that sort to illustrate the moral difficulties with these sorts of ideas, there are always quite a lot of people who just don’t get it (and they’re usually the very people who most need it). Rorschach is the classic example – Moore made him a sociopathic monster explicitly to show that the whole idea of superheroes is terrible and nobody should admire them, and yet Rorschach is probably the most popular character from Watchmen, and it’s largely because he’s a sociopathic monster.

    (Funny story – Rorschach is very obviously a send-up of Steve Ditko’s Mr A. Moore tells that Ditko once said to him “I quite like your character Rorschach – he’s like Mr A, except he’s insane.” The whole point being, of course, that Mr A is clearly insane too – Rorschach just lampshades it. And you’re not supposed to like him.)

  22. gjm11 says

    Actual superhero movies, comics, etc., pretty often have scenes where the hero is fighting the villain and smashes up any number of buildings, occupied cars, etc., in order to get at the villain. It’s a sort of trolley problem in reverse. “You can kill one person, but you have to kill another hundred people in order to do it.” “Great! Sign me right up.”

    Le Guin very much doesn’t say anything about how Omelas is supposed to “work”. I think you can make a case that this is relevant, along the following lines. (I am not sure whether I actually believe any of these claims, but they’re at least somewhat plausible. I think.)

    In a situation where there really was some ineffable magical inexplicable unbreakable link between making one innocent sympathetic victim suffer horribly and making thousands of other people have much better lives, that might actually be a good tradeoff to make. But …
    We all find that a horrifying idea, because in the real world there aren’t generally ineffable magical inexplicable unbreakable links of that kind; when one person’s good fortune depends on another’s suffering, usually the tradeoff is good fortune for a few versus suffering for many, and usually you can actually see the mechanisms, and often there are ways to get most of the benefit without most of the suffering, so that …
    In any real-world situation that someone claims to be Omelas-like, a good response is to call bullshit and do something about the suffering, and people telling you you mustn’t are likely to be people who are personally gaining from other people’s suffering and care about their own welfare rather than the general good. And …
    If you were in a real-world situation that looked like Omelas, it would almost certainly turn out either that there was a hell of a lot more suffering than the advertised one innocent child (maybe there are thousands of innocent suffering children, and they show everyone one of them so that when they hear about an innocent suffering child they think “oh yes, it’s that one” and don’t realise that it’s a different one every time), or that Omelas’s prosperity didn’t really depend on the child’s suffering (maybe what depends on that is a bit of luxury enjoyed by the rulers of the place, and telling the “everything depends on this” story makes it less likely that they get found out). So …
    Everyone is right to feel (as I think everyone does) that Something Is Very Wrong Here when reading the story, but that doesn’t mean that “if what’s explicitly claimed in the story were literally true then we should walk away or burn the whole system down or something” is right.

    Again, dunno whether any of that is actually right, but it might be. If you really did accept the literal claims of the story then you might hold that (a) yeah, the system is horrible but still a good thing on net but (b) you don’t want to be part of it because it feels icky, and hence Walk Away From Omelas. But Walking Away doesn’t actually do anything to help the suffering children, or to make anyone’s lives better; it’s a purely selfish act where you give up some material wellbeing to get a feeling of moral purity. The Ones Who Walk Away would do better to get together and start an Omelas Research Project that tries to understand what the hell is going on in the hope of some day not needing the innocent suffering child any more.

    And I don’t think this is missing the point, because in real-world situations that are Omelas-like this sort of response is in fact good. Vaccination saves millions of lives but a few people suffer bad side effects? Put research effort into figuring out who and how and why and making better vaccines. (This does in fact happen, which is why serious vaccine side effects are so much rarer than the antivaxers claim.) Police forces reduce crime but sometimes cops murder innocent civilians, use their power to get away with rape, etc.? Regulate them harder, completely replace individual police forces that are unable to keep their cops in line, and so forth. (This doesn’t happen nearly enough. But e.g. this sort of thing is why a lot of cops are wearing bodycams, which is how the cops who murdered Tyre Nicholas got caught, and hopefully it acts as something of a deterrent. Again, much more needed, but the point is to act to improve things not to Walk Away.)

    Neither situation is the exact same as Omelas, of course. In neither case is there anything you can do that’s exactly equivalent to Walking Away. But if you could somehow (1) stop being protected by vaccines without the risk of infecting other people, or (2) opt out of whatever crime-reduction benefits your local police force provides, doing so wouldn’t do anything to reduce side effects or stop police murders.

  23. Alverant says

    Reminds me of the web comic Sluggy Freelance where the magic sword, Chaz, needs the “blood of the innocent” to charge up. The most recent time it was by killing a person who was possessed by a demon. The demon would occasionally partially withdrawal from the person to give her hope she was free before quashing it. The demon was doing so when a freak accident sent Chaz through her head killing her and the demon. Apparently, a fan requested to be killed in a grewsome way in the comic.